Over the past few weeks, as the best horses in the world were competing and selling for millions of dollars on the sport's biggest stages, our friends in Puerto Rico have been making progress in their recovery from Hurricane Maria.
As far as they've come, there is still so much that needs to be done.
It was September 20 – not yet two months ago – that one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall in the Caribbean, hit the island of Puerto Rico. In the days and weeks that followed, organizations throughout the Thoroughbred industry banded together to collect and ship much-needed food and first aid to the island. Caribbean Thoroughbred Aftercare (CTA), a Puerto Rico-based organization that typically focuses on retiring and rehoming racehorses in Puerto Rico and the U. S. Virgin Islands, stepped up to play a critical role in coordinating recovery efforts at the race track, disseminating supplies that came by air and sea and coordinating care and medical attention for those horses whose owners were unable to care for them themselves. You can read more about the initial efforts here.
“There have been three plane loads of supplies and a few containers delivered,” said Erin Crady of Thoroughbred Charities of America, who coordinated efforts with RanchAid, The Jockey Club, American Association of Equine Practitioners Foundation, Texas Equine Veterinary Association, Brook Ledge, Swift Air, Vincent Viola, Terry Finley and others to collect supplies and feed.
Crady said while the need is still great, it has evolved from basic equine necessities like forage, feed and clean water to veterinary supplies and basic stable equipment. John Velasquez recently teamed up with fellow jockeys and Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners to supply large tarps — a simple, but much-needed resource — to horsemen on the island, according to Crady.
The CTA was founded just last year by Kellie Stobie, Shelley Blodgett and Eduardo Maldonado and has quickly created a name for itself not only as Camarero Race Track's primary aftercare organization, but also for helping to coordinate the transport of American-bred horses racing in Puerto Rico back to the mainland (an effort that costs thousands per horse due to quarantine and air travel).
Since the hurricane hit the island, the CTA has helped to return seven horses in need of retirement back to American soil. Two others are currently in quarantine and scheduled to arrive in Miami on November 11 and several other horses' travel plans are in the works. Organizations like The Exceller Fund, Old Friends, ReRun, Horse Rescue Aiken and a number of others (including Fallbrook Farm, Alaina O'Brien, Stone Ridge Farm, PTK, LLC, etc.) have offered to take in horses they bred or once owned. Other farms, including Machmer Hall, KESMARC, Stone Ridge Farm and Lorraine Horse Transport's layover farm have stepped up to stable and care for horses temporarily until they can complete their journey to their final destination.
“These people are picking up where we have to leave off due to the disruption of Hurricane Maria,” said Shelley Blodgett, CTA director. “I know many of the Puerto Rican horses [scheduled to race in] the Classico del Caribe (Dec. 9 at Gulfstream Park) are in USDA quarantine and are scheduled to fly [to Miami] Saturday and Monday.”
Held each December, the Classico International del Caribe is the premier race for 3-year-old horses in the Caribbean and this will be the first year a pari-mutuel track outside of Latin America will host the event. Also included in the race day card each year are the Copa Velocidad (Caribbean Sprint Cup), Copa Dama del Caribe (Caribbean Ladies' Classic), Copa Invitacional del Caribe and the Confraternity Cup (both for 3-year-olds and up).
CTA is also working with RanchAid (the FEMA-appointed organization that deals with large animal agricultural recovery efforts) to help reboot the Thoroughbred industry in Puerto Rico. Both organizations have been working to help horsemen regain a source of income to not only care for their horses but themselves and their families.
“Nobody ever wants to be put in the position that they have to prioritize animals versus human life,” said Jonathan Cutler of RanchAid. “For people who raise and love animals, this is extremely difficult. Animals depend on us for food and care – they can't fend for themselves and survive without us, but when you can't even take care of yourself and your family, how do you reconcile it? That's where we come in. We're a stopgap so they don't have to make that decision.”
Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, everything is connected. CTA and RanchAid are helping to get horsemen back to work and earning wages caring for horses. This, in turn, helps the secondary businesses such as feed providers, get back on their feet as well. The process also allows them to better care for their families and begin the rebuilding process at home.
“There is crossover between racing and other sectors of agriculture and business. If someone is involved with racing, often they're involved with Thoroughbred breeding. Maybe they also breed other types of horses or livestock, and they depend on a number of suppliers and vendors in order for their business to operate,” said Cutler.” So, the sectors depend on one another. They have an economic impact on everyday life for many.”
The results of these efforts are already visible.
“My understanding is that hay, grain and other needs are being better met on the island,” said Blodgett. “So, our focus will be to help get supplies from within the island when possible so that it's not only more cost-effective, but helps people to rebuild their livelihoods.”
While much progress has been made, so much more needs to be done. Blodgett said medical supplies and alfalfa are just two examples of needs they are still depending on donations to meet.
“The Jockey Club, TCA, RanchAid, AAEP, USEF and others have all continued to help and stay abreast of the situation,” she said. “Kellie [Stobie] and I have regular contact with these organizations and we cannot say enough how grateful we are and how vital their roles have been and continue to be to help the horses and horsemen in Puerto Rico. The major issues are, because there isn't racing and purse money coming in, some stables are struggling financially. Some trainers and grooms aren't being paid.”
While she said many have continued to care for their horses regardless of their financial needs being met, some have abandoned their horses.
“The Puerto Rican Racing Administrator has been working with others at the track to take possession of these horses, move them to a barn near the clinics and provide them with care while ownership and other matters are being settled,” said Blodgett, who added that CTA will assist with rehoming the horses once they are legally permitted to do so.
Blodgett also said her fledgling organization is being inundated with requests to retire and rehome horses. While the situation has created new awareness and support from owners and breeders in both Puerto Rico and the mainland, it is not nearly enough to cover the cost of helping all horses in need, the bulk of which is associated with the costs for USDA quarantine and air travel for each horse returning to the U. S. mainland.
“CTA is being asked to retire and rehome many more horses than typical, but with racing at a standstill and people's lives so upside down, the funding from Puerto Rican owners and breeders has stopped and we are being asked to do more with less regular financial support,” said Blodgett.
Added Cutler, who deals with the agricultural effects of natural disasters regularly, “Often in a crisis, there's a big push [for aid and funding] immediately after the disaster, then a lull. We're seeing that now in Puerto Rico. We're in that lull but there is still much to be done.”
If you would like to support the efforts underway in Puerto Rico, please use the links to the 501(c)(3) charities below. Please note that your donation should be earmarked for the “Hurricane Maria Relief Efforts in Puerto Rico.”
Caribbean Thoroughbred Aftercare http://adoptcaribbeanottb.org/adopt/donate/
Thoroughbred Charities of America https://www.tca.org/how-to-help/
AAEP Foundation https://foundation.aaep.org/form/foundation-donation
US Equestrian https://www.usef.org/donate
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Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She holds board affiliations with the Make a Wish Foundation, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the Retired Racehorse Project, among others. She is the go-to food source for a dog, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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